This column, by contributing writer Dave Kindred, first appeared in the April 24, 1995, issue of The Sporting News under the simple headline “The best,” the week after Joe Montana announced his retirement from the NFL.
Joe Montana, the best quarterback ever, worked with physical gifts that can’t be measured. He never could explain how he did his astonishments, nor could anyone be taught to do what he did: He made decisions without thought. He saw things and knew what they meant without stopping to consider the possibilities. The great British race car driver, Stirling Moss, nearly died in a wreck and came back two years later to drive at record speeds — only to retire the day he drove faster than he ever had.
He said he quit for a good reason: “I had to think.”
He had to think of when to brake, when to shift, when to turn. He found himself thinking of the speed necessary to do what he once did without thought. The magic of instinct had been replaced by the mechanics of thought. Stirling Moss had won Formula One races touching the brakes and shifting gears a thousand times without knowing he did those things. He had become the car. When he became the car’s passenger, it was time to quit.
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Larry Bird with a basketball in hand knew where the other nine men soon would be. He knew without knowing how he knew. On the run, he stole the Isiah Thomas pass and without a dribble threw a no-look pass to Dennis Johnson sprinting to the hoop. Maybe he had seen Johnson a second before, maybe he knew everyone would be running his way, maybe he knew he had to throw it to that place because only from there could the game be won — and somebody would get there, somehow, because he would lead them there with the pass.
But how could anyone know so much so quickly? How could Joe Montana do it? How did he find Dwight Clark at the back of the end zone? How did he find John Taylor over the middle against the Bengals?
Jerry Rice is going deep. Montana is dropping back, two steps, three, and he sees Rice has drawn two defenders his way. So he looks for a second receiver, maybe a tight end.
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From looking deep, he now is looking short and Montana sees the tight end tangled in a blur of colors behind the line of scrimmage. Which means Montana will make a short toss to a man out of the backfield.
All these decisions made while dropping back. All in two seconds. All while gliding back so gracefully that former coach Bill Walsh called him poetry in motion. All done so quickly that analyst John Madden said, “With most guys, it’s, ‘I see. I step. I throw.’ With Montana, it’s ‘Iseestepthrow.’”
To appreciate the wonder of such work, we should listen to the old quarterback Joe Theismann, himself a Super Bowl winner, now ESPN’s NFL commentator. “Joe could survey the whole field looking for 1 and if 1’s not there, he’s going to 2 and it’s not there, he’s going to 3 or 4, just click-click-click-click, like a computer.
“To me,” Theismann says, “Joe symbolizes everything you can do without a real strong arm. To start with, he had great command of his offense. He played in the same system all 15 seasons. Just total command.
“He had great patience, especially on his play-action passing. He was seven years my junior in the league, but I studied his play-action on film. Sometimes you just want to hurry up and fake and throw it. Not Joe. He had patience and discipline.
“He had toughness. He came back from back surgery and elbow surgery and knee surgeries.
“He won four Super Bowls and not always with great supporting casts. Terry Bradshaw had Lynn Swann and John Stallworth and the Steel Curtain defense. Joe won with the same offense, but with different support groups around him.”
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“Joe Montana is the greatest quarterback ever to play professional football The total package.”
He could run it downfield. He could throw it hard or soft, on the line or floating, and cause it to arrive between Jerry Rice’s numbers. He could put it there on the run. Relentless in his precision, he could score in 16 plays or, if necessary, in one. Under the gun he raised his considerable talents to levels inspiring to see. He came to a huddle not with a swagger but with a certain inevitability: He had done this before, he would do it again. Men who breathed his air became better than they knew they could be.
Small wonder, then, that one of the NFL’s rising star quarterbacks, Brett Favre of the Packers, began his professional education three years ago by studying videotapes put together by his coach, Mike Holmgren, once the 49ers quarterback coach.
They were tapes of Montana at work. Each showed one specific 49er play run in maybe a hundred different situations. Watching them, Favre soon came to realize an extraordinary thing. He saw Montana run the same play a hundred different times, and a hundred times Montana ran it virtually the same way.
“So I sat there every day and watched how Joe did it,” Favre says. “The way he did it was great. It was like watching somebody’s perfect golf swing. It makes you better just watching. I watched Joe and said, ‘Man, this guy … It was just amazing. A hundred plays on each reel and it would be just a guy who’s done everything perfect. Really technique sound. The picture-perfect quarterback.”
Theismann and Favre were not the only quarterbacks who studied Montana on tape. Another quarterback even set up video cameras at San Francisco practices. The cameras were set at angles approximating the angles of a defender’s pass rush. They were trained on Montana as he moved away from center, the idea being to study Montana’s play-action faking. How well did be hide the ball from such a rush? How long could he hold the fake before turning to throw?
The quarterback who studied those tapes was Joe Montana.